107-year-old aunt, ‘second mother’ dies

Published 9:55 pm Monday, March 10, 2014

Eating healthy and walking most places she went may have been the keys to longevity for Jessie Debnam Cross.

The Suffolk native died Friday aged 107. She would have turned 108 on May 2.



Though she had no children of her own, she was a second mother to a large group of nieces and nephews and later beloved by their children and grandchildren.


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“They all ate good, healthy food, and she walked downtown,” her niece, Mary Ann Eure, said Monday. “Maybe that explains her long life.”

Cross joined Main Street United Methodist Church at an early age and attended while it was located in its former building, which is now an apartment building near the Suffolk Seaboard Station Railroad Museum.

“She was quite a celebrity in the church,” Eure said.

The church seems to have a propensity for having long-lived members. Yancey Birdsong was the oldest member of the church until her death about two weeks ago at the age of 108. But Cross, having joined in childhood, had been a member longer than Birdsong, who joined when she married.

Eure said Cross was the favorite aunt of all her nieces and nephews.

“She absolutely adored children,” Eure said. “We’d sit together in church, and I’d play with her wedding rings. She was our second mother.”

Rebecca Debnam, Eure’s sister, recalled walking around downtown with her aunt when Cross would babysit. They visited the baby ducks and chicks at the feed and seed, peered into the blacksmith’s shop, rode the elevator in the American Bank building and got ice cream at the grocery store.

“She was always thinking of things for us to do,” Debnam said. “She made sure she entertained us.”

Cross was in the first graduating class at Suffolk High School and later enjoyed playing bridge. At 80, she moved to Virginia Beach’s Westminster Canterbury retirement home when it opened, and several others from Suffolk moved there around the same time.

“Those ladies and one man had a wonderful time,” Eure said. “They got together and played bridge and had cocktail parties.”

Her aunt enjoyed life for many more years after moving to the home, Eure said. She enjoyed dinners out with her nieces and nephews. She only stopped playing bridge at the age of 100 because she was losing her hearing, Eure said. The family has communicated using a whiteboard and markers for the last several years.

“She was a sweet person,” Eure said. “She had a nice life, and she certainly made us happy.”

A funeral will be held at R.W. Baker & Co. Funeral Home and Crematory on Friday at 11 a.m.